A reparations bill currently floating around Congress and being debated in the House Judiciary Committee may, for the first time since it was hatched two decades ago, actually have a chance at passing. The idea to establish a reparations commission is the brainchild of Michigan Democrat John Conyers. It has been kicked around Congress since 1989, but supporters are optimistic that it will pass since Democrats now have control of the House. Several cities, including Chicago and New York, have passed resolutions in support of the bill. Los Angeles City Council vote on a resolution Tuesday.
On the surface, the bill is straightforward, and even innocuous. It calls for establishing a commission to study reparations proposals for African-Americans, not for doling out money. But as the past hyper-charged and contentious history of this debate has amply shown, when it comes to talking about reparations it’s anything but simple and straightforward. Yet there are ten reasons why Congress should back the commission.
1. The U.S. government, not long dead Southern planters, bears the blame for slavery. It encoded it in the Constitution in article one. This designated a black slave as three-fifths of a person for tax and political representation purposes. It protected and nourished it in article four by mandating that all escaped slaves found anywhere in the nation be returned to their masters. In the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that slaves remained slaves no matter where they were taken in the United States.
2. Major institutions profited from slavery. Several states and cities now require insurance companies to disclose whether they wrote policies insuring slaves. This is recognition that insurance companies made profits insuring slaves as property. The insurance industry was not the only culprit. Banks, shipping companies, and investment houses also made enormous profits from financing slave purchases, investments in southern land and products, and the transport and sale of slaves.
3. The legacy of slavery endures. In its 2006 State of Black America, the National Urban League found that blacks are far more likely to live in underserved segregated neighborhoods, be refused business and housing loans, be denied promotions in corporations, suffer greater health care disparities, and attend cash-starved, failing public schools than whites.
4. Former Federal Reserve Board member Andrew Brimmer estimates that discrimination costs blacks $10 billion yearly through the black-white wage gap, denial of capital access, inadequate public services, and reduced Social Security and other government benefits. This has been called the “black tax.”
5. Since the 1960s the U.S. government has shelled out billions to pay for resettlement, job training, education, and health programs for refugees fleeing Communist repression. Congress enthusiastically backed these payments as the morally and legally right thing to do.
6. The reparations issue will not fuel more hatred of blacks. Most Americans admit that slavery was a monstrous system that wreaked severe pain and suffering on the country. Also, there was no national outcry when the U.S. government made special indemnity payments, provided land and social service benefits to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, Native-Americans for the theft of lands and mineral rights, and Philippine veterans who fought with the American army during World War II.
7. No legislation has been proposed that mandates taxpayers pay billions to blacks. The reparations commission bill is primarily a bill to study slavery effects. The estimated cost is less than $10 million.
8.There is a precedent for paying blacks for past legal and moral wrongs. In 1997 President Clinton apologized and the U.S. government paid $10 million to the black survivors and family members victimized by the syphilis experiment conducted in the 1930’s by the U.S. Public Health Service. In 1994, the Florida legislature agreed to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. Public officials and law enforcement officers tacitly condoned the killings and property damage. The Oklahoma state legislature has agreed that reparations payments are the morally right thing to do to compensate the survivors and their descendants for the destruction of black neighborhoods in Tulsa by white mobs in 1921.
9. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and other mega-rich blacks will not receive a penny in reparations. Any tax money to redress black suffering should go into a fund to bolster funding for AIDS/HIV education and prevention, under-financed inner-city public schools, to expand job skills and training, drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation, computer access and literacy training programs, and to improve public services for the estimated one in four blacks still trapped in poverty.
10. A reparations commission may well conclude that reparations payments would do more harm than good. That slavery compensation would be too costly, too complex, too time consuming, and too dated. And that it would create too much public rancor. Yet, a reparations commission that examines the brutal consequence of slavery and its continued tormenting impact on race relations in America is a good thing. We can all learn something from that.
Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006).